The Flying Bluenose

And once Angus Walters raced the Bluenose when the boon of life itself was the only prize at stake

J. H. MCCULLOCH March 1 1927

The Flying Bluenose

And once Angus Walters raced the Bluenose when the boon of life itself was the only prize at stake

J. H. MCCULLOCH March 1 1927

OUT from the quaint old town of Lunenburg, on the storm-beaten coast of Nova Scotia, sailed the greatest fleet of deep-sea fishing craft to be found on the seven seas. Ninety-two trim sailing schooners, carrying more than sixteen hundred dory trawlmen, beat away to the tall waters in the teeth of a stiff nor’ easter. Among the leaders was the Bluenose, whose name, with that of her skipper, Angus Walters, is known from Newfoundland to Rio. As if conscious of her peerless sailing qualities, the beautiful schooner, with all her canvas out, drew away from the rest of the fleet.

“Look at her footing it,” exclaimed the skipper of a schooner that was falling astern of the champion. "Every time she spits she shoots a mile.”

The helmsman of the slower vessel glanced back at the Bluenose. “She’s eatin’ dis wind, sure, Cap’n,” he admitted. ‘‘Guess Angus is out to pile up a new fishin’ record this year, eh?”

“Or getting her trim for the race with the Haligonian,” suggested the Captain, as he watched the Bluenose shearing the seas.

“D’you t’ink dat Halifax wessel can beat Angus, Cap’n?” the helmsman queried. ‘‘She’s built for ungodly windward work, they say.”

The grizzled skipper took another look at the flying nonpareil, and shook his head.

Captain Angus Walters and his helmsman (in oilskins.)Captain Angus Walters and his helmsman (in oilskins.)

“I’ve seen ’em all,” he replied emphatically, “and as long as Angus is skipper of the Bluenose, they’ll never beat him in a fair race. That schooner’s a witch, I tell you. Look at her liftin’ into dem seas, will you? No, sir! She’s got ’em all beat, on every point of sailing. On the wind and off the wind, broad reach and close, she’ll leave them like smoke, with Angus at the wheel.”

Meanwhile, the pride of the North Atlantic sailing fleet was beating rapidly toward the dangerous fishing grounds off Sable Island. On the third night out, she sighted the east light, and, satisfied with her position, let go her anchor. At four o’clock on the following morning, the dorymen set out with their mile-long trawls, and the fishing began. There are eight dories to each Nova Scotia banker, and each dory handles more than a mile of trawl. The eight lines radiate from the schooner on eight different points of the compass, so that nearly ten miles of trawl lines, marked by buoys, surround the ship. Along these far-flung trawl lines, from daylight till dark, in fog, sleet, and bitter wind, through seas that would alarm and sicken a landsman, the hard-bitten dorymen work back and forth. It is a hard life, but it breeds men.

For two days, all went well for the Bluenose. She had taken in two hundred quintals of fish, and the prospects for a record catch looked good. On the ‘frozen bait’ trip, a month earlier, the Bluenose, as usual, had taken her place among the high-liners of the Nova Scotia fleet, with a catch of 800 quintals. Under the circumstances, Captain Walters had visions of beating the fishing record of the Sylvia Mosher, high-liner of the fleet for the three preceding years.

A sight to gladden a sailorman's heart. The Bluenose under full sail.

But old Father Neptune proceeded to upset the calculations. On the third fishing morning, a sou’wester came up, driving sleet before it. Shortly after noon, the half-frozen dorymen struggled back to the straining schooner, and got their fish aboard. The skipper decreed that fishing was over for the day, for the sea was growing ugly, and the sleet hid the schooner, which is a bad condition for dorymen. During the afternoon, the wind steadily increased, and by five o’clock, a gale was blowing. The rigging was whistling, and great blunt seas, shadowed by the snow and sleet that swept them, were charging down upon the schooner. With two hundred and seventy-five fathoms of cable out, and with her riding sail hoisted, she was meeting the seas like a sleeping gull. By six o’clock, the gale was howling through the darkness, driving a heavy smother of snow before it. The Bluenose, under the increasingly savage assaults of the crested combers that now came snarling out of the darkness at her bows, strained at her cable. Captain Walters ordered the crew to put two double reefs in the foresail and reef the jumbo, in case of trouble during the night.

The fores’l was barely reefed, when a mountainous sea struck the schooner a staggering blow on the nose. As soon as her waist was free of the green water that tumbled aboard, the skipper made his way for’ard. The cable had parted. The Bluenose was adrift on a lee shore.

Off the Graveyard

AT THE moment her cable parted, she was fourteen miles off the nor’west light of Sable Island, the light bearing from her N.E. by E. E. To those who go down to the sea in ships, nothing more need be said by way of depicting the grave predicament of the schooner. To landsmen, let it be said that Sable Island is known to blue, water sailormen as ‘The Graveyard of The Atlantic,’There is no more sinister place in all the seven seas. It lurks, like some hungry monster of the deep, 170 miles out from the coast of Nova Scotia, close to the lanes of North Atlantic shipping. It is a crescent-shaped sand bar, about ten miles long and two miles wide, on which nothing grows except cranberry bushes and a sparse fibrous grass. On this tough provender, supplemented by sea-weed, a band of wild ponies, the mongrelized remnant of a load of Norman ponies that swam to the Island from a ship-wrecked French brigantine in the last century, eke out a precarious existence.

The only human beings on the Island are the handful of Canadian Government employees who maintain the lifesaving stations. Its appetite for ships is insatiable. The Marine Department of The Canadian Government have prepared a map of the notorious place, showing, by diagram, the known wrecks which have occurred on the bars during the past hundred years. I got one of these rare maps from Captain Martin, of Halifax, and it shows no less than 183 wrecks of steamers, ships, barques, brigs, brigantines, and schooners. That hundreds of ships lie in unmarked graves on Sable, goes without saying.

How many of those tall clippers and Yankee privateers, that disappeared in the North Atlantic, long ago, lie buried in the live sands of Sable? A good many of them, I dare say for ancient gear, and ancient coins, are frequently cast up by Sable’s uneasy sands. There is scarcely a yard of the island that has not felt the ribs of ships, and it is as greedy for them as ever. Its peculiar menace lies in the fact that its submerged bars reach out, like the tentacles of an octopus, far into the sea. The east bar, for instance, extends for nearly twenty miles out from the East lighthouse. The government map shows a cluster of eight wrecks of big craft, including the steamer Amsterdam, at the extremity of this submerged tail of the island. The west bar, which runs out from the west light-house for about fifteen miles, is thickly strewn on both sides with wrecks, right out to its extremity. It will be seen, therefore, that the lighthouses are practically useless on a dirty night, especially if there is fog or snow. On such nights, the brave lights cannot be seen away out on the far-flung bars. And, as if conspiring with this sinister trap of the sea, the heavy tides swing in towards it.

A schooner boarded by greybeards.

So much for ‘The Graveyard of The Atlantic,’ off the nor’west bar of which the Bluenose found herself suddenly adrift. She parted about half way from the anchor up to the hawser pipe. Not knowing, at the time, how much cable was out, the skipper ordered his crew to heave the cable back aboard, instead of cutting it off by the windlass. If anyone doubts the coolness and high courage of a Bluenose skipper, let him ponder over this act of frugality. You are to remember that the schooner was drifting in a frightful sea, in a blizzard, in the dark. You are to remember, too, that the gale was from the sou’west, and that a heavy tide was hurtling in towards the nor’west bar. These conditions, according to any sailorman who knows the North Atlantic and Sable Island, sealed the doom of the Bluenose. No ship, in such a position, had ever got clear of that awful tentacle of Sable.

Captain Walters lost valuable time in heaving cable back aboard and all this time his schooner drifted closer to the nor’west bar. The venomous and quickened assaults of the sea warned him that the schooner was approaching shoal water, and, with that warning, he took quick command of the situation. Bellowing to his crew, he raced aft to the wheel, took a look in at the compass, and turned to the helmsman.

“Guess I’ll take the wheel for this trick,” he said grimly. "Better lash më to the wheel. We’re liable to get some water aboard before we get out of this hell-hole.”

So, the man who had steered his peerless schooner to victory after victory in races against the fastest schooners of Nova Scotia and New England, took her wheel in the greatest race of her career. While the helmsman lashed him to the wheel, the double reefed fores’l and reefed jumbo were set, and the skipper, bunched and fighting, stood his schooner to westward. He calculated that the wind would last long enough in that quarter to bring him up clear of the nor’west bar. There was just about room to make it.

Instead, after going about ten miles, the wind started checking to westward, which made him wear ship and go on the other tack. This took time, for the gale was so savage that the double reef fores’l and reef riding sail had to be lowered, and, until they were got back up again, the fighting schooner kept drifting in toward the sounding bar.

The grim, fighting figure at the wheel saw now that he was on the brink of complete disaster. The seas were piling in over the schooner, raging as only shoal water can rage. The water was no longer black; it was yellow, and the deck was strewn with sand, the yellow sand of Sable. As soon as the sails were set on the other tack, the log was hauled. It was full of sand!

The sea was breaking from the bottom. On heaving the lead, it was found that the schooner had only eleven fathoms. Off the Sable

Island bars, a few feet may take a laboring, wind-driven ship from ten fathoms to a fathom, for the water shoals abruptly. The Bluenose was as near disaster as any ship could possibly be, for to touch the bar near by. meant quick and utter destruction under the murderous assaults of the crackling combers.

The 1923 race. The Bluenose is running away from the Haligonian.

Still there was a fighting chance if the sails held. The skipper put a look-out up on the main gaff; the rest of the crew went below, for the seas were crashing across the deck. The lives of all aboard depended, now, on two things, and two only, and every soul on board, from the hard-bitten mate to the lads who ‘throated’ and ‘headed’ the fish, knew what these things were. These two things were the fighting skill of the man lashed to the wheel, and the ability of their far-famed ship to sail close to the wind.

Meanwhile, blinded by snow, the man at the wheel fought the North Atlantic and Sable Island, silently. At times, he was completely under water as the gallant schooner threw off the charging seas. The spars were groaning, but he held her to it with knowing hands. Crash! A frightful greyback hissed down on the schooner, but she took the assault on her bows. For the best part of a minute, the man at the wheel was under water, fighting like a bulldog. When the icy water rolled away from him, he glanced back grimly at the screaming sails. God! was there ever such a ship? Under those masterly, tenacious hands, the Bluenose was sailing almost into the eye of the wind, beating off a lee shore like a fighting thoroughbred. She was taking bitter punishment, but, fortunately, she was able to take it across her bows. Any other sailing ship on the North Atlantic would have had to take some broadside punishment and no wooden ship could have taken that kind of punishment that night off Sable. Even so, the Bluenose was not to come out of her

ordeal unscathed. A mountain of water came hissing down at her, and struck her such a staggering blow that the crew, knowing instinctively that something serious had happened, tumbled up from below. The damage was plainly visible. The mauler had carried away thirteen stanchions, the rail, and everything on the deck. Some of the great oak stanchions were broken off like matches several inches below the deck, and the sea was pouring into the ship.

“Canvas her!” yelled the skipper, when the damage was reported to him.

So, in the noise and water and darkness, skilled hands canvased the laboring schooner from the bow back to the middle of the fore-rigging on the starboard side. Although grieviously hurt, she was fighting to windward as gallantly as ever. Hour after hour, she ate into the gale, and at last, at midnight, the wind hauled. The Bluenose was safe. She had won the greatest race of her career, and with Angus Walters at her wheel. All through that stormridden night, she ploughed away from Sable, and daybreak disclosed the terrific fight she had put up. Her deck was yellow with sand, and she was a gaping wreck for’ard. No wooden ship ever took more punishment across her bows, and lived to reach port.

The schooner was still plunging through an ugly sea when the cook came up from below and handed the dripping skipper a pint of scalding coffee.

“She made it, Cap’n,” commented the regular helmsman.

Captain Walters squinted up at the taut sails.

“Yeah,” he replied. "It’s a good thing we lost our jumbo and fores’l on the frozen bait trip, eh? The gale that night wasn’t so bad. Them old sails would have blown away quick last night, eh?”

The helmsman nodded. The skipper looked in on the compass, and turned to the helmsman. “Work her back,” he ordered curtly. “We’ve got to find that gear.”

So Captain Angus Walters went below for a bite and forty winks, and his gaping schooner worked back to the fishing grounds off Sable Island. The next morning, in a heavy sea, she picked up her abandoned trawls, and this accomplished, headed for Lunenburg for repairs. It cost just three thousand dollars to repair the damage which that big shoalwater mauler had inflicted upon her bows, and her chances of making a fishing record for the 1926 season had gone a-glimmering. But she was not the only recordseeking banker to be thwarted by the north Atlantic, for the Sylvia Mosher, named after her popular skipper’s little daughter, went to her death on Sable in the first week of August, 1926, and her crew of twenty-five men, the flower of Nova Scotia’s manhood, perished to a man. In the same gale, the Sadie Knickle, another high-liner of the Lunenburg fleet, was driven on Sable, and not one of her crew of twenty-three survived.

Old Lunenburg is accustomed to the ruthlessness of the North Atlantic, but these two disasters darkened almost every home in the town, and cast a shadow across the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

I talked to an old sailing master about the exploit of the Bluenose. He made a rough sketch of Sable Island, indicated the position of the schooner when the storm cast her adrift, and discussed her escape.

“There’s no other wessel on The North Atlantic, fishin’ or coasting, could have done it,” he concluded, tapping the sketch

with a heavy, gnarled finger. “I never see the like in windward work, and I’ve seen some handy ones come out o’ Novy Scotia and Gloucester. ’Course, you’ve got to figure that Angus was at the wheel. Dere’s a sailorman for you! When Angus takes the wheel, dere’s a race on. Ever hear about the record voyage he made to The West Indies a few years ago in the Bluenose? He left Lunenburg hawbah on a Tuesday morning, with a load of fish, an’ he was discharging his cargo at Porto Rico ten days later. He took on ballast an’ sailed to Turk’s Island, discharged his ballast there, and took in a load of salt. He was delayed at Turk’s Island for. thirty-six hours, but he was back in Lunenburg hawbah on the fourth Tuesday. Made the round trip in twenty-eight days, he did! And listen, sir! He hoisted the mains’l outside the hawbah here, and never lowered it till he got back to Lunenburg. Dere’s a sailing record for you!”

A Windward Prodigy

'“PHE Bluenose is what some sailors call a ‘freak’ ship. That is to say, her sailing qualities are freakishly perfect. There are no unseaworthy ships in the Nova Scotia fishing fleet. A poor vessel never would stand the storms that the bankers encounter in the tall waters, and the Lunenburg fleet, being a co-operative enterprise, has no place for such craft. As a matter of fact, during the past twentyfive years, 135 schooners have been built and launched in Lunenburg to replace older vessels. When one considers the extremely hazardous nature of the calling of these Lunenburg folk, and the fact that their fishing organization makes generous provision for women and children who are bereaved by the sea—each widow of a fisherman lost at sea receives a pension of $30 00 a month, and $7.50 for each minor child—it will be apparent that fast and handy sailing ships are not uncommon in Lunenburg. But, as every sailorman knows, every sailing ship is something of an unknown quantity until she has been tested by fair winds and foul. She may appear to be perfectly designed for fast sailing, and yet she may prove to be slow and ungainly, especially in windward work. The Haligonian, which raced against the Bluenose last autumn, in the great international Fisherman’s classic, was designed by W. J. Roue, the man who designed the champion. The Halifax schooner was expected to show greater speed than the Bluenose. She is a thing of beauty, and went into the great race under the command of Moyle Crouse, one' of the ablest skippers on the Atlantic. Off the wind, the schooners seemed to be fairly well matched. But, when they began to beat to windward, the Haligonian made four tacks to cover a sixmile leg, and the Bluenose, pointing high, made it in one long port tack. During this extraordinary performance, she was hauled as close on the wind as she would go, and she hit a ten-knot clip in a sea, showing a clean pair of heels to the government steamer Arleux, which was trying to overtake her.

“It’s in the cut of her bottom, mostly,” explained a well-known skipper to me. “They’ll maybe design a schooner, some day, that’ll beat her. Shouldn’t wonder if they do. But,” he added, “when dey design dat schooner, dey’ll need to design a man, too, for Angus Walters can sure handle a ship.”

There is something in that, too, in view of the sailing record of the little skipper of the Bluenose. Angus was born in Lunenburg forty-five years ago. He has followed the sea all his life, and his only boast is that he has lost only one man at sea. And he lost that man in Gloucester harbor when he was down there racing. His father was a celebrated Lunenburg character, a real, hard-bitten Bluenose skipper of the old school. They tell many stories of the elder Walters in Lunenburg. Angus is a small man, physically, but like his Scottish prototype, John Paul Jones, he is as tough as whalebone, as bold as a lion, and as full of fight as a sackful of wildcats when the need for fighting arises. That he is a sportsman was dramatically demonstrated when he raced the Bluenose against the Elsie, the American challenger. The Gloucester schooner seemed to be carrying an excess of canvas in that race, and as a result, was hove down too much. There was quite a sea running, and, suddenly, she lost her topsail. According to the rules of the International Fisherman’s Race, of course, each skipper carries, if he can, every square inch of canvas he is permitted to carry, but nevertheless, when Captain Walters saw what had happened to the American schooner, he immediately took down his own topsail!

A contrast, that, I am sorry to say, to the treatment which Canada’s crack skipper has received in American waters when the International Championship was at stake. I could tell quite a tale about his experiences when he raced off Gloucester, but let that pass. Suffice it to say, that the fiery little skipper of the Bluenose came back from Gloucester with a nasty taste in his mouth, so to speak, and he refuses to race again off that port.

The result of his decision has been that a few Yankee skippers and their wealthy flannelled partisans, have indulged in a little growling. They exclaim, in pained accents, that Captain Walters had spoiled the International Fishermen’s Race. Well, Angus and the Bluenose have spoiled it for a lot of vociferous skippers—by winning it so easily! That’s the chief trouble with some of his critics! And Angus has always sailed a clean race—a fisherman’s race. The first innovation open to criticism is chargeable to the Yankees themselves, for when the Esperanto, of Gloucester, raced in the 1920 classic, her anchors, chains, and deck engines were stowed below, and she was ballasted with pig iron, instead of the rocks used by fishermen. The skipper of the Bluenose is all for a genuine fisherman’s race. He wants wind and sea, fisherman’s ballast, and anchors at the bows, where they ought to be. He is ready to meet all comers, and the more the merrier, for he knows what he can do with his wonderful ship. He is perfectly willing to race the Yankees off Marble Head, or Sandy Hook, or Halifax; his only objection is to Gloucester, and, right or wrong, he is pretty definite about this.

The best sailing course, anyway, is off Halifax. The course there—it is about forty miles straight but runs to about sixty with the windward work—is an open one, and there is generally enough wind and sea on the triangular course thoroughly to test the competing schooners and their crews. Angus doesn’t think so much of the Gloucester course, anyway. He says it is too much inland. One strip is sailed three times, and unless there is a sou’west wind, there isn’t enough sea on to make a Nova Scotia skipper feel at home.

Naturally, they love to beat the Yankee skippers, these Bluenose fishermen of ours. Albert Himmelman, who skippered the Independent, once took the wheel, in bad water, for a day and a night, without a rest, just for the sake of beating the Yankee skippers in the 500-mile homeward races from the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. And Albert generally beat them! He was a gigantic man, and was famous, among famous skippers, for carrying canvas and defying the wind and the sea. On shore, in slightly elevated moments, he used to describe himself as ‘a tall man from de eyes up!’ Poor Albert! He switched toa new ship a few years ago, sailed away to the tall waters in her, and was never heard of again.

But to return to the best-known sailor of them all, and his famous ship. She is no yacht, this Bluenose. Her length, over all, is 142.5 feet, her width twenty-seven feet, and her depth twelve feet. She carries a crew of twenty-two men, 3,200 quintals of salt fish, or 500,000 pounds, is her load. When fishing, she is minus her foretopmast, which strips her of her balloon jib and fore-gaff-topsail. In racing trim, she carries a mainsail, foresail, jumbo, jib, balloon jib, main and fore-gaff topsail, and maintop stay-sail.

And with all this washing out, and with a good wind a-blowing, doesn’t she eat the sea! She shears through it like a high powered launch, leaving a wake like a liner. With Angus Walters crowding her she is the prettiest thing to be found on the Atlantic Ocean, and one has got to see her lying at rest in the back harbor of Lunenburg to realize that she is, after all, a thorough-going Nova Scotia fishing schooner that knows no other calling. When I saw her last, she was riding at anchor, stripped, in her snug winter harbor. She will remain there till the tall ships sail away next month on the ‘frozen bait’ trick, when she will seek the lead again in the race for fishing records. For this flying Bluenose is a banker, and her skipper is a fisherman, and in old Lunenburg,

‘Men must work, and women must weep, Though storms be sudden, and water deep,

And the harbor bar be moaning’